Breaking Bad’s copouts (spoilers)

by Sonny Bunch on August 22, 2012

Some spoilers for the latest couple of episodes of Breaking Bad; read on at your own risk.

The fifth episode of this season of Breaking Bad ended with the murder of a child, in cold blood, by a new member of Walt’s crew. This little boy had stumbled onto their heist of a batch of chemicals needed to cook meth and he paid for it with his life. It’s just another body left in Walt’s wake—another child’s body.

The sixth episode opens as Walt, bag man Mike, and possible sociopath/definite child-killer Todd working on evidence removal duty. The dead kid was riding a motorbike, you see, and it must be disposed of. So the crew takes it apart bit by bit. It is dismembered—chassis separated from engine; movable parts stripped from each other; wheels removed then quartered with a saw—and placed into a barrel, into which acid is poured to dissolve the physical proof of this child’s existence, and their ending of it. They then look back to the truck and see that their work isn’t done, not really: the little boy’s hand pokes out from a mound of dirt. He is to get the same treatment.

It is a beautiful, haunting scene. Shot without dialogue, strikingly photographed, harshly lit: it was virtuosic.

It was also something of a copout.

We are not made to confront the human consequences of Walt’s work: his obsession with squeezing every last drop of methylamine out of that train, the skeletons his empire will be built upon, the broken dreams and families and little, vulnerable bodies left in his wake. We don’t see the acid splash down on this child’s corpse, washing away his identity into an unidentifiable puddle of goop. The aestheticized, almost ritualistic, destruction of the child’s motorbike covers up the decidedly unaesthetic disposal of the child’s corpse.

Breaking Bad has made an effort to show us the consequences of Walt’s behavior and the impact it has had on his family, especially Skyler. He is, in many ways, a far less sympathetic anti-hero than his forebears—he is no Tony Soprano. A reckoning is heading toward Walt and those who surround him, and we’re torn between a desire to see him succeed and see him humbled.  The show’s creators feel we can be shown half of Gus Fring’s blown-away face because he’s a bad man who had it coming. We cannot be shown the child’s disintegrating essence because he’s an innocent. But we need to see both to fully wrestle with Walt’s fate. His true monstrousness is hidden from us, ever so slightly.

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PK August 22, 2012 at 11:42 am

Some of that, I think, falls under American TV squeamishness – the murder of a child is something very few people are willing to touch, and even Breaking Bad tried to show you as little of it as possible.

And some of that also falls under the worldview of Walt and the story being told – it’s all about him. Look at the episode that followed: Walt’s obsession with the net worth of Grey Matter, his retroactive justification for continuing, even when presented with the fact (by Jesse, who’s become the last good man standing) that he really only needed $737,000 and now he’s turning down $5 million. The story is clear enough – nothing is more important to Walt now than power. Maybe that’s all that was ever important.

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